NUMBER ONE
FOR COACH & BUS

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November 28 2018
By Tim Deakin

Tim is Editor of routeone and has worked in both the coach and bus and haulage industries.


Running coaches: It's not easy, says one operator

Managing a small operator is not easy: it is 24/7 and it can take its toll on the mental health of the owner. Runcorn-based Anthony’s Travel boss Richard Bamber has taken various steps to help him cope

Richard Bamber: ‘Don’t let the day job come to take over your home life’

It’s nearly guaranteed that every manager at a small coach or bus operator will be able to empathise with Richard Bamber. More particularly, with the situation that he has found himself in on a handful of occasions during his time steering Anthony’s Travel.

Richard is the well-known Managing Partner of the Runcorn-based operator. Prior to taking the reins, he was understudy to his late father Tony.

He is dedicated both to the business and to furthering the coach industry’s interests. That has paid dividends: Anthony’s is a multi-award winning operator and Richard is justly proud of what it has achieved.

But equally, he knows exactly how mentally tough it can be when work starts to take over a person’s life.

Like many men, Richard used to keep the stresses of running a small business hidden. By his own admission, he was ‘burning the candle at both ends’. His regular attendance at meetings and functions was often followed by an 0600hrs alarm call the next morning.

He believes that his story is not a unique one. He is concerned that a focus on work and little else is common in the coach industry, and that it has a negative effect on the mental health of those concerned.

With the aid of his wife Dawn, Richard has reduced his evening engagements. That helped the work/life balance, but there is much else for people in his position to do, he says. Nevertheless, he observes that for most small business owners, long hours are part and parcel of the job.

“At Anthony’s Travel, we have 16 vehicles. To pay a salary that would attract a good general manager is a step beyond for many companies in our position, or if it is possible, more vehicles would be required to generate additional income. Then the treadmill goes on,” he says.

“That leaves the operator in the difficult position of having to find the right people for middle management positions. That is an awkward task, but it is one of the most important things that an owner does. I am extremely lucky in that I have staff that I trust.”

Ups and downs

A strong team goes a long way, but the stresses of running a small coach business are still present. Richard believes that they are common across the industry; for example, if a driver calls in sick, it’s usually the boss who is left to deal with it.

Running a small business can be mentally stressful at times, says Richard

“I noticed that there was an issue among coach company owners when I started to use LinkedIn,” he says.

“Additionally, when Beverley Bell was Senior Traffic Commissioner, she made observations about mental health at a Confederation of Passenger Transport meeting. She had obviously noticed that it was becoming an issue.”

By his own admission, Richard has suffered ups and downs throughout his life. The most recent low point came after the passing of his father in 2015.

“My father was an excellent front man for the business, but he was a tough taskmaster at times. When he was diagnosed and given 12 months to live, I set myself some goals to make him proud of what he had achieved.

“We were nominated for three awards that year and we won them all, but I was on a treadmill of work and little else.”

It’s good to talk

Richard returns to the point of having the right people around him. That doesn’t just extend to those who can shoulder the burden of running a small business; it also includes being able to talk to them when necessary.

“My father struggled to know what to say when I was going through a dip. He was from the generation where people didn’t talk about their feelings. He was a bailiff at one point, so it’s possible that talking would have been seen as a character weakness,” he says.

Richard’s father Tony died in 2015 and it was a difficult time for his son

It came as a great shock after Tony’s passing for Richard to discover that his father had been prescribed antidepressants.

Richard had also been using the medication, but the further success that he developed within Anthony’s Travel in the period following his father’s death led to him to stop using it. That was a mistake, he admits.

“In 2017 we were doing very well. I’d brought in things that my father was reluctant to adopt and we had invested heavily in vehicles. I stopped using antidepressants and for a period everything was OK.

“Then we had series of issues that were all business-related. It was nothing that I couldn’t handle, but when even the strongest person is faced with an amalgam of problems, it takes its toll.”

He is now using antidepressants once again; although Anthony’s Travel did not suffer during that turbulent period, Richard’s home life did. He was back on the treadmill, and he has only been able to get off it thanks to support from Dawn and his staff. Weekend pursuits such as walking also act as a foil to the stress of running a small business.

How common is it?

Richard believes that troubles such as his are more common than may be thought. He often uses the term ‘pressure cooker’ to describe the combination of many small things that would be little to worry about individually, but when put together, become a big problem.

“Some of the best advice I have ever been given was by a friend in the Halton business community. He is mentally strong and he built a very impressive company before selling it. But he’d had some issues and he takes things to heart, as we all do. He told me that when a relationship - be it with a client or an employee - has let you down, treat it like a bad business deal.

“Everyone in the coach industry has done their share of bad deals. It goes with the territory. Unless it is something that is majorly detrimental, they are seldom things that you play over in your head. Treat a sour relationship in the same way. Box it off and move on.”

It's imperative to have people around you that you trust and can speak to

In the wake of Tony’s death, Richard paid close attention to the people around him. His fondness for boxing is well known. Some of them tried to take advantage of that.

“I was grieving for my father and some individuals were complaining that I hadn’t bought them VIP tickets for a boxing match at £300 each. They are not the sort of friends that anyone needs.”

Still a business

Even though weekend pursuits represent worthwhile escapism from the stresses of running a business, Richard takes umbrage at usually jovial suggestions that the owner can take time off whenever he or she wishes.

“That is like a red rag to a bull. It is a lot easier if you have a team that you trust, but I cannot take time off just because I feel like it. Try telling most coach operators not to come to work for four weeks. It doesn’t work like that.”

He advocates an open relationship with employees, but within reason. Staff with problems will naturally take them to the boss, but that cannot happen on an unrestricted basis. “Your shoulders become more and more burdened but who looks after you? Unfortunately, sometimes people must be put in their place.”

The pressure cooker is mentioned again. Richard has long since stopped worrying what the competition is doing - what vehicles they are buying, what work they are taking on - but he says that there is much else that contributes to the pressure. We’ve had the Working Time Directive, low emission zones, Euro 6. If you run coaches, it’s inescapable, just like driver shortages are.

“But it has led me to pay close attention to how, as the head of the company, I manage these things and how I ensure that they don’t affect my personal life. It doesn’t have to be tablets; it can be by going to the gym, walking - whatever works for that person. You can’t change everything. But there are things that you can put in place to help you cope with the stresses of the industry.”



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